South Ossetia: News from a Nowhere Zone

Rusiko Amirejibi-Mullen r.amirejibi-mullen at
Wed Nov 26 10:20:34 UTC 2008

South Ossetia: News from a Nowhere Zone
Varvara Pakhomenko, 25 - 11 - 2008

In defiance of the Medvedev-Sarkozy plan, Russian troops are not  
allowing international observers into the mountainous region of  
Akhalgori/ Leningori, east of Tskhinvali. But Varvara Pakhomenko of  
the human rights organisation Demos managed to reach this place which,  
though 80% Georgian, technically belongs in South Ossetia.

In the "Atlas" shop on Kuznetsky Most in Moscow, the salesgirl looks  
down and says that they have no maps of Georgia left. They used to,  
but not any more: "You understand, this is the situation now. All  
those events..." When asked if this means that Georgia itself is no  
longer on the map, the girl smiles: "You could put it like that".

In reality, it's not all as bad as that. Georgia remains on the map,  
but it will be coloured differently. Radmil Shayapov, deputy head of  
the Russian Federal Ordnance Survey Agency, recently said that on  
political maps of the world published in Russia, the territories of  
Abkhazia and South Ossetia will now be coloured differently from  

However, to be consistent, one must admit that after the war in  
August, places have appeared on the map which could only be given one  
colour - grey. The new "grey zones" are territories that are under the  
de facto control of no one. One of these zones is the Akhalgori region  
of Georgia, otherwise known as the Leningori region of South Ossetia.  
The territory is one and the same, but the name depends on what side  
of the conflict you approach it from. When I inadvertently used the  
name "Leningori", a Georgian diplomat commented in irritation:  
"There's no such place as Leningori. Lenin has been dead for so long!"

In the 1920s, when Georgia became one of the Soviet republics, this  
territory became part of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, and the  
regional centre received the name of Leningori. The mountain range  
separating it from Tskhinvali meant that this eastern region was only  
formally part of South Ossetia. The only road went to the south,  
towards Tbilisi, and to reach Tskhinvali, you had to take the central  
Georgian highway. The population was 80% ethnic Georgians, and  
Ossetians mainly lived in mixed families. So when the city was renamed  
Akhalgori in the early 1990s, and almost all the territory was  
transferred to the administrative jurisdiction of the Mtskheti region  
of Georgia, no one objected: neither in Tbilisi nor Tskhinvali, which  
had proclaimed its independence.

In 2006, the Georgian authorities tried to resolve the South Ossetian  
conflict by creating an alternative pro-Tbilisi government in the  
republic, which had seceded.  This was headed by the former prime  
minister of the separatists Dmitry Sanakoyev. A Saakashvili decree  
restored the former South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast and the Akhalgori  
region was included in it, so as to increase the number of voters at  
the alternative elections,. The temporary administration of the  
Autonomous Oblast was located in the village of Kurta, six kilometres  
to the north of Tskhinvali and under Georgian control.  After the  
August conflict, the pro-Georgian officials were forced to move to the  
centre of Tbilisi, where they were established in the "Chess Palace".

On 16 August Russian soldiers entered the Akhalgori region, which  
Tbilisi itself had recognised as part of South Ossetia in the internal  
political game.  At the same time, local residents began to leave.  
Initially only a few left, but by the end of August - when television  
showed villages in the Gori region that had been burnt down and looted  
by the Ossetian militiamen following after the Russian soldiers -  
there were more than 2,000 refugees from Akhalgori. Almost two thirds  
of the population has left the region where no more than 9,000 people  
had lived.

With the arrival of the Russian soldiers the region was practically  
cut off from the rest of Georgia. On the road from Tbilisi, three  
checkpoints were set up - one Russian and two Ossetian, examining  
documents and inspecting all the passing cars. Things have been made  
easier for the residents since the beginning of October:  the  
commandant of South Ossetia, Colonel Anatoly Tarasov, managed to get  
the number of checkpoints reduced to two, and mass checks were  
stopped. But international observers and representatives of  
humanitarian organizations are still not allowed into the region. All  
the Georgian officials who we talked to before going to Akhalgori said  
it would be impossible to go there.

A few kilometres after the Georgian police checkpoint, we saw the new  
sign "Ossetia". In Akhalgori, the Ossetian flag was flying above the  
regional administration building. However, it turned out that the main  
currency here is not the ruble, but the lari. The balance was restored  
by the cell phone operators: we had to change the Georgian "Beeline"  
SIM cards in our telephones to SIM cards from the Russian "Megafon"  

The head of the Akhalgori orphanage Manana Makharashvili was at a loss  
when asked who was responsible for the orphanage: "The Georgian  
education ministry, I think - no one has said that we have been  
reassigned". There had been 73 children from various regions of  
Georgia at the orphanage before August, but by the end of October  
there were 56 left - children who had any relatives at all had been  
removed.  Schools started work again on 15 October, but parents are  
afraid to send their children there - no one trusts the armed Ossetian  
militia and the Russian soldiers. Not more than 150 children attend  
the three functioning schools in the regional centre.

Teachers at the orphanage are afraid even to think about what will  
happen next. Recently, Russian and Ossetian checkpoints refused to let  
a car with humanitarian aid through, and the current supplies will  
probably last for no more than a month. The gas that previously came  
from Georgia has now been cut off, so the orphanage has been left  
without heating.  In the rest of Ossetia schoolchildren are taught  
using Russian textbooks, but no one knows what to do if the Ossetian  
authorities decide to introduce Russian books in the regional schools  
here - almost no one speaks Russian.

No institutions in the city are functioning except the schools,  
orphanage and post office. The joint Georgian-Ossetian brewery which  
used to produce beer that was sold all over Georgia, no longer  
functions. Although this is a mild way of putting it: the equipment  
was removed by Ossetian militia and Russian soldiers in August - also  
a kind of international co-operation.

The Akhalgori region is actually the only place where there are many  
complaints of looting by the Russian soldiers. The federal troops take  
food and other items from abandoned houses. Local residents say that  
the village of Kanchaveti,  abandoned after August,  is almost  
completely occupied by soldiers: they have their military equipment  
there and the soldiers themselves live in the abandoned houses. The  
equipment came here directly from Tskhinvali.  Russian specialists had  
begun to build a road through South Ossetia before the war, but they  
didn't manage to finish it by August, so the remaining 30 kilometres  
were passable only for off-road vehicles. Now military equipment has  
completely ruined the road. The local people are seriously concerned  
that if the road to Georgia is closed, which is what has happened in  
other regions of South Ossetia, then they will be left without any  
connection to the outside world whatsoever.

In the rest of South Ossetia the Russian soldiers are seen as  
liberators, here they are regarded as occupation troops;  but  
everywhere people clearly distinguish between the politicians making  
the decisions and ordinary people. Local resident Muraz, who heard by  
telephone that we were from Moscow, drove at breakneck speed from  
another village to see us:

"It's great that you've come all the way from Moscow! I recently had  
guests from Moscow here, they were geologists."

It turned out that "recently" meant during the Soviet period. Muraz's  
neighbour says that people came here infrequently even from Tbilisi,  
until Sanakoyev was elected.  The neighbour himself, although he is  
Ossetian, says that he has never been to Tskhinvali - all his  
relatives are in Georgia.

"In the 90s, even in Georgia almost no one had heard of our Leningori,  
and now they talk about it everyday on television," says Muraz. "Our  
town will probably be renamed Putingori now. I recently heard a  
soldier calling it this on the telephone. There are now a lot of  
soldiers here: yesterday helicopters arrived again with new equipment.  
In August, the Russians were stationed in our village, Ikoti. I went  
to meet them, and asked them if they needed anything for their lads.  
There was a guy called Dima from Volgograd. He said he didn't need  
anything but cigarettes, but  he'd also like to ring home to tell his  
mother where he was. I bought him a carton of cigarettes and a top-up  
phone card, but he didn't have a Georgian SIM card. I was scared to  
get one in my name - what would people think about me? Now they're  
saying that we should get Russian passports, or we'll have difficult  
times ahead."

Passports are not being issued yet, but people are afraid that this  
will start in the spring and that young people may be drafted into the  
army.  They don't know whether it will be the Ossetian or Russian  
army, but neither option is attractive.  Colonel Tarasov told Russian  
human rights advocates from "Memorial" and the Demos Centre that in  
the Akhalgori region there had indeed been cases of the Ossetian  
militia threatening to drive out the local Georgian population.  
Although there have not been cases of arson or murder in the region,  
people are still leaving their homes - first they tried to get some  
money for their houses and property, but now they simply leave  
everything behind. Some go to stay with relatives, and some go to  
temporary shelters for refugees.

The conversation moves smoothly on from refugees to politics.  The  
Medvedev-Sarkozy plan for the Russian troops to return to their  
positions of before 6 August is not being implemented and now Russian  
soldiers are 60 kilometres from Tbilisi - just one hour's drive. It is  
a strategically advantageous place for the soldiers - a mountainous  
region stretching along the Georgian military road.

As we sit at the table, we raise the traditional toast for Ossetian  
and Georgians, "to the fallen" - to everyone who has not lived to see  
this day. Our host recalls with tears in his eyes that Dima from  
Volgograd died several days ago - he fell off an APC when drunk, and  
the hospital couldn't save him...

Muraz and his wife spent a long time trying to persuade us to stay the  
night.  All their neighbours have left, and they want someone to talk  
to. At least we should visit again, they said, and we would really  
like to come back: the area is stunningly beautiful, and the people  
are incredibly hospitable. But it's impossible to guess from which  
direction we will be able to visit next time, what flags we will see  
here, what SIM cards we will use in our telephones and what currency  
we will use to pay the driver.

And in fact, we don't even know whether any people will be living here  
next time. People whose main problem is that both sides want to  
reprint the maps.

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